Back when I hit the pause button on this blog in January 2020, I had no clue what the months to follow would bring. My very last post, a late 2019 draft I never bothered making public, was an interrogation of the phrase “on the brink” and my own muscle memory in times of crisis. The last thing I actually published, back in December 2015, was a note of longing for a more stable, more still, more rooted life following years of constant movement. I had been grieving. I was tired and felt disconnected from so much. Several years and three major international moves later, I have at last arrived at stillness. I have houseplants, some of them fussy, a long lease in my name, and about a third of my books – liberated from long-term storage – now crowd the shelves in this sun-soaked apartment. Just last year I hung a beautiful painting by the Haitian artist Maxan Jean Louis on my wall, gifted on a studio visit in 2013. It took me the better part of a decade to give it a proper home.
I hit pause on freelance magazine writing some years ago, too. Did a stint in documentary, then radio, then quit both to start a PhD. But all this time of barely writing in public, of social media repulsion and decay, of not having a space to think aloud, has left me feeling a different kind of disconnect. So, I’m clearing the dust. Long live the blog. The blog is back.
I’ve kept a blog of some sort since 2001. In 2005 I moved that kind of writing — loose conversations with myself, informal, searching, and incomplete — to nowarian.com.
‘Nowarian’ is a word born of the living genius of Caribbean English (I owe much of my early literary and creative education to Toronto’s West Indian communities!) and one that, for a time, seemed to speak to my complicated feels about displacement with an elasticity and nuance I’d yet to find in other language. I spent most of my twenties wandering and wondering about home.
In recent years I’ve barely come around here. I’m no longer at ease holding this lil dot com, so until I figure out what to do with it all you can find updates on my writing and other public work elsewhere. Thanks for coming by and please enjoy this photo of the most delicious mango I’ve eaten all my life in Cidade Velha, Cabo Verde!
Émotion: la douleur de voir partir ainsi pour toujours quelqu’un qu’on a aimé éperdument, ne serait-ce que l’espace de 12 secondes et 3/10.
[Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer]
A year and a half of nonstop bouncing between geographies has left some marks. Six weeks lost in New York’s wounds, two weeks of sighing over Toronto’s halting flakiness, eight weeks floating though the light and open longing of Lisbon, seven weeks of tender patience and uneasy alertness in Port-au-Prince, plus handfuls of lovely or bewildering stops elsewhere thrown in between. Lather/ rinse/ repeat, for the nineteen months since I left my last home (temporary, still) in the Caribbean.
You can get good at packing and unpacking. That’s not hard. You can rise above the physical exhaustion of constant motion to let those motions become normal. Everywhere, deflecting the same questions on loop — Where do you live now? How long are you in town? — automatic, ritual, white noise. The hardest adjustments are internal. The spaces between people are not the same everywhere, our connections linked by different inputs/ outputs, and you are the international travel human adaptor. When you don’t have a single default or home, there is no normal to disappear back into after a particularly rattling trip. The trip doesn’t end. Everything feels weird all of the time — most of all, you.
One week you’ll greet everyone you meet with a kiss on the cheek, smile warmly, accept the dried fruit or steaming coffee offered, answer thoughtful queries from near-strangers on the health of family members, on the health of your heart. The next, you’ll be in a place where people you’ve met twenty times will pass without a nod. You’ll remember, slowly, that this snub is normal here, back in the place of fickle moods and ritual ghosting of friends and lovers. Here, spaces between people can stretch so far, the waters between them can run so cold. Adapt your touch accordingly.
(Once, freshly arrived from that place and not yet warmed to the new vibe, I breezed past an ex and his friends at a bar without a glance. I did it without thinking, cool walls still up. He confronted me later, face imploringly close — Why didn’t you say hi? — and I felt shame. I couldn’t be this way here, with him, and didn’t want to be this way anywhere, with anyone.)
“We’re going to the beach.” K pings me on WhatsApp mid-morning on a Sunday. The roads were clear, a blessed, temporary opportunity for escape amid weeks of blockades. “Call J to pick you up. He’s leaving his house.” Fifteen minutes later, afternoon plans pushed off, bikini on, towel rolled, ready for a day with the sea. Late afternoon on a Tuesday, a source calls to say she’s stuck in traffic, or there’s been a breakdown, or someone was shot, and could we meet across town in an hour or two instead? Time, space, mortality, everything fluid and unfolding, shifting according to the tides of the moment. That place, full to bursting but always flexible. Then a connecting flight brings you, like a space ship, to this other place where time is rigid. It’s FB invites and advance guest lists, emails that begin apologetic for the late notice, but are you free a week from Friday? R.S.V.P. Interested in attending? Maybe. V busy. LMK. Time flows through spaces differently, and vice versa. Adapt your clock accordingly.
Passport stamp from a teeming city of openness and eager ease for exchange to a smaller city of territoriality and fragile selves. Both, my cities. From here, where you listen tense and watch wary for danger before you turn the corner, to there, where other women walk carefree and alone at night with headphones on ten. Another plane to another place, where male gazes are predatory and pointed, and then off again, to where men are too nervous to give their feelings away with anything intimate as a gaze. The spaces between bodies, inviting or dangerous or confusing. Adapt your heart accordingly.
Adapt, adapt, adapt.
There’s a way you come to know yourself in motion: limber, unchained, unsupported by the usual pillars, a guest and unentitled, at mercy of the winds, carrier of changing skins and privileges, torn-out pieces of self buried lovingly throughout. It feels nothing like the exiles I threw myself into during my twenties. With exile, you’re always confronted by what and where you are not, existing in contrast.
I’ve been reading Dany Laferrière (L’Immortel!) and Mia Couto together this past week, sinking into their respective exiles in 1980s Montréal racism and lust or wartime Mozambique bush imaginary from my still-temporary bed in Toronto:
The cycles of light and of the day were a serious matter in a world where the idea of a calendar had been lost. Every morning, our old man would inspect our eyes, peering closely into our pupils. He wanted to make sure we had witnessed the sunrise. This was the first duty of living creatures: to watch the creator’s star emerge. By the light preserved in our eyes, Silvestre Vitalício knew when we were lying and when we had allowed ourselves too much time between the sheets.
— That pupil’s full of night.
At the end of the day, we had other obligations that were equally inviolate. When we came to say good night, Silvestre would ask:
— Have you hugged the earth, son?
— Yes, Father.
— Both arms open on the earth?
— A hug like the one Father taught us to give.
— Well, go to bed then.
[O Afinador de Silêncios]
I admitted (finally, again) to myself that I’d like to try to sit still somewhere for a little while (again, finally), at least longer than it takes to finish a TSA regulation mini shampoo. A default home base, a combination launch/landing pad filled with books and artwork liberated from their boxes, my notes and files all in one place, a mailing address, a single normal to relax into between overlapping worlds. Sitting still will help me think, I told myself. I’ve been wanting so badly to write, to read, to just be, without the consuming distraction of booking flights, organizing sublets, shipping, visas, exchange rates, negotiating which shoes to bring, recalling which belongings I have stored where, keeping track of my SIM cards, or swapping out slang and pop culture currencies so damn often — operational code switching ramped to an international scale. (How I managed a transition from news to longform through all of this is baffling.) More than anything else, I’m tired of mourning the distances that matter. I’ve missed some important goodbyes, and it’s hard to forgive myself for those. Friends doubt that I can sit still anymore, and say so to my face. No no, I insist, it will be a relief to give myself freedom from movement.
Beginning to plan for stillness, just considering gig offers and longer-term sublets and imagining alternate lives in a couple of cities, has thrown me into the worst creative block I’ve experienced in years. My active bouncing fighting mind, panicked, held itself hostage through most of December. Come on, I coaxed, we have deadlines to get through. It, too, will have to adapt.
A man called into Radio Caraïbes FM this morning, agitated and groveling for sympathy. Digicel, the Jamaica-based Irish-owned telecoms company that rules mobile phone life in Haiti, nearly destroyed his relationship. “I was supposed to meet madanm mwen on Saturday,” he said. He sent her a sweet little text message: “I’m waiting for you, chèrie.” She received his note, with much confused chagrin and much rage, five days later while he was at work. Now she wanted to leave him, he wailed. “Is this the state of communication in our country?”
I listened to his consumer dissatisfaction and heartache spill all over the radio while stuck in traffic — a terrible snarl near the forever dicey old cemetery, where Route Delmas, Route Freres and Petionville touch. At the tap tap station, a parked chauffeur dry shaved his head with a cheap blue razor, torso bowed out the side toward his mirror. Driver’s windows rolled down as familiar faces passed each other in opposite directions, pounds and broad grins in the slow crawl. “Brother, I haven’t heard from you! Call me!” A boy clipped through traffic in flip flops, clap clopping as he ran past us, quick on his feet but his expression heavy. A half-hearted “Uh! Uhhh!” up ahead, the plaints of someone he had just robbed, not bothering to give chase. I shrugged. Little thieves need to eat, too.
Everywhere there are handmade kites for sale, my favourite green-skinned breadfruit piled up gorgeously on the side of the road, women swaying under the impossible weight of merchandise piled in giant tubs on their heads. You can’t throw a grenadia in this town right now without hitting a political meeting. Deputy and senator and presidential hopefuls are rallying support, drawing lines and loyalties, promising pay outs months ahead of this year’s elections. The woo is strong, and it is served up in every corner restaurant accompanied by steaming mounds of rice.
My phone lights up constantly. Did you sleep well? Have you had your coffee? Be careful if you go to this part of town today. Did you hear about this accident with a water truck? I wanted to be sure you’re okay. How is your family? How is your grandmother? How is your heart? When will I see you again? And: Are you staying for good this time? I say no, but no one wants to hear it.
The evening rains came back this week. The downpour begins around 9 pm or 10 pm, hard, and carries on heavily until long after I’m asleep. Cool clouds linger past dawn, and the city that slumbered in stickiness wakes to chill and mud. By mid-morning, the sun finally eases out from behind the grey. The mud warms. Mosquitos twitch. Cellphone signals bounce out into the open skies, carrying schemes, gossip, and poetry to the tired, the ambitious, and the lovestruck.
The last time I talked to James was November 21st, 2012. The day before he was kidnapped.
It was midday Haiti time, evening Syria time, when he popped up on Skype — that moody pixelated avatar that looked like he’d snapped it in a foggy bathroom mirror.
On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, Susana Ferreira wrote:
> homie. where you at? how are you?
On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> Hey you!
On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> what’s the word Doggg???
We’d met earlier that year when we participated in the first RISC training, an intensive medical course for freelance journalists, hosted by the Bronx Documentary Center. By day we’d learn about tourniquets, head trauma, spinal injuries, and shoved bloodied gauze into a plucked chicken as practice for packing wound cavities. By night we’d drink pints, eat greasy New York slices, and trade stories about our respective corners of the world. It was a great, friendly group of people, and I was in awe of the cross-section of talent, camaraderie, humility. On the last day of our training, April 20th, we gathered at The Half King on 23rd and 10th to toast the memories of two journalists who had died the year before in Libya, Tim Heatherington and Chris Hondros.
James had been to Libya. He’d been kidnapped in Libya, too, and watched as his friend, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, was killed by pro-Gaddafi forces and his body abandoned to the desert. He’d seen the ugliness of war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, too, but he didn’t carry that ugliness with him. He had a youthfulness to him, a tremendous light behind his eyes. Every other eulogy I’ve seen since the news broke makes mention of Jim’s lady-killing grin, but that giant smile started way up his face, behind his eyes. Then again, it could be that my memory is fuzzy — we’d been drinking the last time we crossed paths, after all. Most of my Blackberry photos from that night at The Half King are a gleeful mess, war reporters and photojournalists mugging goofily, flushed, caught mid-joke or mid-giggle.
I kept in touch with some of the extraordinary colleagues from the RISC training, but none more closely than James. He added me on Skype right away and we talked frequently over the next months as I went back to Haiti and he pinged between the States and the Middle East.
On 11/21/12, at 11:29 AM, James Foley wrote:
> I’m in Syria, just a had close call with a tank round yesterday so we pulled back to a safe town, nice to have a sunny day with no shelling
Our conversations often circled the same themes: we bemoaned the crap pay and lack of support we got as freelancers, laughed at ourselves for accepting that crap pay and lack of support with gusto, talked about upcoming assignments, enthused over dream assignments, made promises to move away from our respective regions and on to other parts of the world by year’s end, and lamented our mutual chronic indecisiveness in finding a next spot to settle. He wanted to keep bearing witness, but wondered aloud if it was time to step back from war. He forever downplayed his own discomforts and worried after my well-being to an extent I found comical, checking in post-Sandy or scolding me for getting dengue fever while he was the one wearing Kevlar, ears still ringing from nearby shell blasts. His regular pop-ups and pep talks were a comfort, they were motivating, often hilarious, and they were absolutely a blessing. Before we logged off for the last time, we talked again about a reunion in New York around the New Year. He’d be leaving Turkey and Syria by mid-December to spend the holidays with his family in New Hampshire, and I’d be flying to Toronto around that time for the same. A little freelancer career counseling and commiseration session back at The Half King was just what we needed to start 2013 and a year of fresh adventures off right.
James Foley is in the far back row, last on the left. Matt Power, wearing green and also in the far back to the right, passed in March. Photo by Ricky Flores.
A month later, as I wondered why his foggy avatar hadn’t popped up in so long, I found out from another journalist. Kidnapped. The new year started with a public countdown by the Foley family, marking the days since gunmen nabbed their son, their brother on his way back across the Turkish border with almost no trace and no news. The count ended yesterday, day 636.
I didn’t know James long, but I’ve felt his absence heavily. I can’t say how many times I tucked away an anecdote, usually about some goof-up I’d made, thinking: “When Jim comes back, I’ve got to tell him this.” I thought of him when I finally decided to move away from Haiti, wondering whether he’d be proud or laugh at me for dragging my feet for so long. I thought of him every time another journalist was kidnapped, or another journalist released. I thought of him as Syria spiraled, and I thought of him as ISIS rose up and swept through. When the headlines and stills from that video exploded across my timelines yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help searching the face in those images to see if it was really him. I have not and will not watch the video of his murder. I have a long list of questions about what happened to him during those 636 days, but I’m not sure I want to hear any answers right now.
I don’t know why I wrote this. It’s self-indulgent in a way that I’d normally find repellent — his kin and oldest friends could say so much more about Jim, the sound of his laugh, the flaws that made him infuriating and uniquely him, his goodness and humour and openness and curiosity. I suppose I just wanted to say something. That I feel grateful to have known him, even so briefly, and to have had his positive presence in my life during some trying months. That I admired and respected his commitment to following front lines, to documenting injustices, to bringing connection and friendship and light to some dark corners. I can’t tell him this any more, because I know now that his fuzzy blue avatar will never again pop up in a Skype chat, but I’m so glad James Foley existed.
Rest in peace, homie.